Direct Dialogue: a Moment of Truth for Kosovo

LEAD: Reasons why Kosovan leaders must constructively talk to Belgrade

Direct Dialogue: a Moment of Truth for Kosovo

LEAD: Reasons why Kosovan leaders must constructively talk to Belgrade

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

In a few weeks, a delegation of elected representatives from the Kosovar government will meet their Serbian counterparts in Vienna to agree on ground-rules for beginning to discuss practical issues of mutual concern.

But within Kosovo, the closer we get to the Pristina-Belgrade dialogue date, the more vacillation among political leaders grows.

The fact of the matter is that Albanian political leaders are looking for maximum political cover by stressing only the harm that may come out of these talks, mainly the losing of votes in next general elections.

But no Kosovar politician has so far shown enough political courage and vision to come out with a statement that points out the benefits dialogue with Belgrade could bring to Kosovo.

His is why I think it is important for leaders in Pristina to talk with their

counterparts in Belgrade.

First, in order to deal with the practical issues on the agenda which will make life easier for both Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo.

Second, the dialogue should happen as an expression of the maturity of Kosovo's provisional institutions.

On the practical side, the agenda includes four loosely defined areas: transportation and communications; the return of displaced people and refugees; missing persons; and electricity.

Transportation and communications might cover such issues as Serbian recognition of Kosovo license plates, bus and rail connections and the licensing of mobile phone providers.

At the moment, the majority of Kosovar Albanians must avoid travelling through Serbia because they posses travel documents which Serbia has not yet recognised.

Even Kosovars who posses Yugoslav passports have a problem travelling in Serbia - even if they want to do something as much as drive through it - because their Kosovan car plates are also not recognised in Serbia.

On the other hand, the small number of displaced people - mostly Serbs - who have returned to Kosovo has been consistently defined as Kosovo's greatest shortcoming.

Until Kosovo welcomes back its own people, Brussels has made clear that Kosovo has scant chance of being welcomed into the European family.

Having loved ones unaccounted for is among the most psychologically tormenting situations a person can face; both capitals' interest in receiving definite information on their fates is self-evident.

And anyone who has sat shivering in a dark apartment in Kosovo can appreciate the need to buttress Kosovo's delicate energy supply with improved links to the regional grid.

Even if the dialogue doesn't appear to be making any head start in any of these practical issues, it is difficult to underestimate the second symbolic importance for Kosovo leaders to constructively participate in the dialogue process.

When the dialogue process commences, the international spotlight will turn on Kosovo for the first time in years - except for occasional reports of atrocities.

It is in this moment that Kosovar leaders need to demonstrate their ability to cooperate with one another in advancing Kosovo's interests. They also must demonstrate their ability to be pragmatic.

Kosovars may worry that dialogue means negotiations, negotiations mean compromise and compromise means betrayal.

This perception may come out of having witnessed popular hostility to President Ibrahim Rugova's meeting with Milosevic during the NATO airstrikes. As a consequence no party wants to be seen to be making a compromise with Belgrade.

But, compromises are quid pro quos in which the parties feel the quid they receive is more valuable to them than the quo they give up.

Precisely because the issues on the table are of such obvious practical importance, Kosovo leaders' refusing to discuss them with Belgrade would signal the world that despite their calls for greater power, Kosovo's provisional government was little more than a talking shop that deferred all tough questions to the UN Mission that retains ultimate authority in Kosovo.

Part of the explanation for the reluctance of some in Pristina is that they may not realise that they have something to prove.

But the reality is that the burden is on Kosovo Albanians to show they are serious leaders prepared to face tough issues - even those that risk censure from their own electorates.

Participating in direct talks would indicate that Kosovo's leaders were prepared to act like governments everywhere, dealing with hard issues for the sake of their constituents.

If Kosovo's leaders proclaim to the world that any such transaction is anathema to them, it will be tantamount to declaring that they are too precious, too otherworldly for the marketplace of interests at the heart of governance.

Some Kosovan leaders argue that the international community should first express its goodwill by transferring another couple of ministries to Kosovo's provisional institutions before the talks begin.

But these are powers that UNMIK, according to the UNSC Resolution 1244, can't transfer until Kosovo's final status has been resolved.

The dialogue will be facilitated by the Contact Group which includes the US, UK, France, Germany, Italy and Russia. Not incidentally, the Contact Group includes four out of five permanent veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council - the body that will ultimately decide Kosovo's status.

If the Kosovo delegation rebuffs the Contact Group's efforts to facilitate a process that is clearly in Kosovo's own interests, it will have left little doubt that Kosovo is content to remain a ward of the international community.

If, on the other hand, Kosovo leaders are sincere in wanting to resolve Kosovo's status, they have to prove that they have the maturity to conduct themselves as a government. The choice is theirs.

Whitney Mason is a public affairs advisor to the UN Special Representative to Secretary General in Kosovo.

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